Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook
10 Dec 2011
United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 focuses on concrete, positive measures that countries can take to combat religious intolerance rather than legal measures to restrict speech.
- In November, the entire UN membership endorsed this approach in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.
- The United States is holding an expert-level meeting with foreign government agencies and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security on December 12-14, 2011 to focus on:
- Effective government strategies to engage members of religious minorities and training of government officials on religious and cultural awareness.
- Enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The discussion on laws will include a review of laws currently in place.
- “The Istanbul Process” series of expert level meetings seeks real and effective measures against bigotry, discrimination, and violence on the basis of religion or belief in the ways spelled out in Resolution 16/18, which are fully consistent with freedom of expression.
For more than a decade, the international community has been engaged in a polarized debate over how best to combat religious intolerance. The United States has championed a call for governments to do the kinds of things we do in the United States to address acts of intolerance that are also in line with respect for universal human rights, such as prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on religion or belief, training officials to avoid discrimination in their official duties, putting enforcement mechanisms in place, and engaging with members of religious communities. Others have pressed for governments to ban expression that might be considered insulting or “defamatory” toward religions or their believers. The United States has consistently opposed – and continues to oppose – this approach and UN resolutions endorsing this “defamation of religions” approach because it would be contrary to the principle of free speech, put governments in control of religious expression, and exacerbate religious intolerance.
In March 2011, Resolution 16/18 was adopted by consensus in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, securing an international consensus around our action-oriented approach to combat religious intolerance that protects freedoms of speech and religion. Additionally, last month a similar resolution was adopted in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York, solidifying this global consensus. The global support for this resolution marks a major departure from the “defamation of religions” resolutions, and our meeting here next week is an effort to cement that consensus and focus governments’ attention on the best ways to implement the actions called for in Resolution 16/18. Our goal is to work with governments to translate this consensus into real world action to ameliorate the serious challenges of intolerance, discrimination, and violence that members of various religious groups face around the world.
Accordingly, to ensure an action oriented meeting with a substantive focus on implementation, the United States has invited foreign government officials with responsibilities comparable to those at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to discuss best practices for two of the recommended actions from resolution 16/18: engagement with members of minority religious communities and enforcement of laws that prohibit acts of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. Representatives from approximately thirty countries have been invited to attend, in addition to participants from various international organizations such as the European Union, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Organization of American States, ASEAN, the Arab League, and the African Union.
Subsequent to the meeting, the State Department will issue a report outlining a set of best practices identified during these sessions to be submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and for public distribution. We expect that this meeting will be the first in a series of such “Istanbul Process” meetings that will help direct efforts and resources towards finding real and effective measures against intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief, as delineated in Resolution 16/18, which are fully consistent with freedom of expression.
This is an opportunity for the international community to have a meaningful, positive impact on a problem that has concerned so many for so long. I am excited for a productive meeting and hope that you all will join our efforts on these grave and challenging issues.
“[The resolution] consolidate[s] a growing international consensus towards dealing with acts of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in ways that are in accordance with international human rights standards.” - Article 19, November 15, 2011
“The U.N.’s new approach reflects what is needed to combat the intolerance we continue to see around the world. It is crucial for leaders to protect freedom of expression, condemn and prosecute violence, speak out against hatred and affirm equal rights for all.” - Human Rights First, November 15, 2011
“During the March 2011 session, the [United Nations Human Rights] council took a major step forward by discontinuing the adoption of a perennial resolution on ‘defamation of religions.’ Instead it adopted a new resolution on combating intolerance and incitement to violence against persons based on their religion or belief… The adoption of the new resolution has allowed states to refocus the discussion on religion and discrimination.” - Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2011
“The resolution on combating religious intolerance represents the culmination of a decade-long campaign to defeat the concept of ‘defamation of religions’ and prescribes smart and practical remedies to the world’s many victims of discrimination and violence as a result of their religious beliefs.” - Freedom House, March 24, 2011
“The resolution properly focuses on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence, instead of protecting religions from criticism. The resolution protects the adherents of all religions or beliefs, instead of focusing on one religion. Unlike the defamation of religions resolution, the new consensus resolution does not call for legal restrictions on peaceful expression, but rather, for positive measures, such as education and awareness-building, to address intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief.” - United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, March 24, 2011
Video: Remarks on December 12, 2011 by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, and Assistant Secretary, Policy for Homeland Security David Heyman